Saturday, March 29, 2008

By Jingo!

I paid my first visit to the Finborough in a good long while this week. It appears to have gone all gastropub since I was last there, though I didn’t have time to eat anything. I was running a tad late and didn’t even have time to avail myself of a gin, so, in the opening seconds of the play, when a uniformed waiter sailed in with a cocktail on a tray, I did momentarily wonder if it would be bad form to ask him to pop downstairs and sort me out with a drink.

The Finborough are currently reviving Charles Wood’s Jingo, a dark unsettling farce set in Singapore in 1942. The floor of the theatre has been papered over with a world map, the pink of the British Empire prominent. Susannah Harker plays Gwendoline, an army wife, who is more concerned with the reappearance of former lover Ian than with the imminent Japanese invasion. She is a woman who clearly takes care of herself first, and is implausibly wed to weedy, doltish George, a non-military sort who has been made an honorary major in order to deliver lectures to the troops on the habits of the ‘little yellow men’.

Wood’s play is a bitter thing. The British are depicted as naïve and over-confident, charging into a situation and then retreating when things go awry, leaving the native Chinese to their fate. And though his characters speak in an intensely English manner that is now almost comic, with everything ‘spiffing’ and ‘top notch’ and so forth, the contemporary resonance of the play is considerable.

The cast really throw themselves into it. Susannah Harker is a joy as the divinely self-involved Gwendoline, idly toying with the men in her life for her own amusement; sitting adrift in a ball gown as people flee the country, desperately boarding boats. And Peter Sandys-Clarke is also excellent as George, a priggish and yet deeply pathetic figure, plainly not cut out for battle. Though it appropriates elements of farce, it makes for a rather bleak evening. There are however a number of very memorable scenes, most notably the sight of the broken brigadier with trembling hands begging Gwendoline to spank him - which she duly, if reluctantly, does.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


I am Not At The Theatre again. I have been mostly up in Scotland instead. And though I’m sure they have theatres up there, they must have been buried under all the snow and hail and sleet they laid on for Easter weekend. The last few days have mainly involved sitting by the fire, drinking copious amounts of Sancerre, stroking cats, and wearing two jumpers at the same time. This was far from being a bad thing, though all my plans to go and look at pretty things and take brisk walks up hills and whatnot rather fell to pieces. Ah well, back in London now. Normal service will resume shortly.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Orange Tree Unchained

Last week I also found the time to drift over to Richmond for a preview of the new show at the Orange Tree. It was a weekday matinee and, as a result, I suspect I was the youngest person in the audience by some wide margin. The couple next to me had quite an interval picnic going on with cling-film wrapped sandwiches and bags of crisps and I was even able to notch up my first sighting of a thermos flask in quite some time.

The Orange Tree’s current production is Chains of Dew, part of a season of neglected work by woman writers. It was written in 1922 by American playwright Susan Glaspell (No? Me neither, though apparently she won a Pulitzer in her day) and has gone unperformed since its original production.

Things begin in a New York apartment where Seymore Standish, a poet from the Mid West, is visiting his radical friends, Nora, a birth control campaigner with fashionable bobbed hair, and Leon, a liberal newspaper editor. Seymore bemoans the constraints of his conservative existence back home in Bluff City where his creativity is stifled by a respectable job, a sweet, unworldly wife, and the countless social obligations that come from being a man of standing in a town such as his. The first scene didn’t bode well. It took a good, long while to establish the characters and felt rather static and uneasy. Wavering accents amongst the cast didn’t help matters, and the scene could have been a good deal tauter and shorter if they’d snipped out some lengthy and repetitive business with a mimeograph machine.

The true meat of the comedy only revealed itself when Glaspell shows us Seymore on his home turf and we see that, for all his protests, he is rather content with his straight-laced life, composed as it is of bridge games, church meetings and rounds of golf. So when Nora and Leon show up in Bluff City, Seymore is understandably distraught to see these two separate aspects of his life collide. His sophisticated, self-assured New York set are as out of place in his home town as it is possible to be. They are very keen to liberate Seymore, to free his inner artist from the shackles of respectability, oblivious to the fact that he is quite happy as he is. Instead it is his wife, Diantha – though he insists on calling her Dotty and casually dismissing her every attempt to better herself – who is excited by their arrival, sensing a chance at liberation.

Though these later scenes are very funny, Glaspell’s play is more than just a comedy of two worlds colliding; there is anger at its heart, a bitter undercurrent. She is aware that it will take more than just a few daring hair cuts to execute true social change. And though Seymore’s wife is able to taste the possibility of a new existence, Glaspell recognises that things don’t change as easily as that. A taste of freedom is all Diantha gets and the play ends on something of a downbeat note.

The ensemble cast work well together and David Annen plays Seymore with a good dash of charisma and makes him into something more than just a self-absorbed hypocrite. I was also very taken with Helen Ryan’s performance as Seymore’s wise and wonderful mother.

Fans of heavy-handed symbolism will enjoy the repeated references to a picture of the Sistine Madonna, which is removed from its hook when Diantha first meets Seymore's friends – and then later rehung. But the play was, once it hit its stride, something of a joy: poignant and perceptive, and very entertaining with it.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Emotional Wringer

Last week I was lucky enough to see two plays that packed a real emotional punch. The first of these was random, the new play by Debbie Tucker Green at the Royal Court. This is a beautifully pared down piece of theatre. There is no set, no props, just one woman, actress Nadine Marshall, standing against a black, back wall. She moves from character to character, mother, father, brother, sister, telling the story of an ordinary family, an ordinary day. Arguments over mobile phones and burnt bits in the porridge. And then something bad happens – the random act that changes everything. And the writing suddenly envelops you, tugs you along into awful places. It’s the details that make it so powerful. The sister trying to hold onto the memory of her brother’s odour. The police officers who fail to take their boots off in the family’s living room. The writing has a wonderful grasp of rhythm, finding poetry in people’s everyday voices, and Marshall is superb, hopping from character to character – by the end of the 50 minutes I felt drained, spent.

The other play was Snowbound by Ciaran McConville. Currently on at the smaller of the Trafalgar Studios, this is a play about Tom, a stoic young man who has been caring for his disabled brother since the death of their mother, putting his life on hold. Then he meets Mary and falls in love and starts to put himself first.

It’s a flawed play, yes. It veers close to cliché at times, especially in the way that Tom’s brother Alex is conveniently always able to see to the core of a situation and say something that is both simple, suspiciously poetic and yet wise at the same time. Tom’s girlfriend Mary is also just too damn sweet and good – something awful is bound to happen to her and it does. But where McConville excels is in scenes of unabashed emotion – the final scene between the two brothers is powerful stuff, superbly performed by Sam Hazeldine and Karl Davies. It was a scene of rare rawness. Unsurprisingly there was an awful lot of sniffing and nose-wiping and ‘whoops, I appear to have something in my eye’ type mumbling as people left the theatre.

And, harking back to the Barbican and the less than impressive stage brawling in The Harder They Come, Snowbound also featured one of the most convincing stage punches I’ve seen in ages. You felt it connect; you feared for Davies’s dental work. The Whingers may also be interested to know that a large bowl of pasta, coated in an unappetising sludgy cream sauce, is not only consumed by the valiant cast but is used as an inspired alternative to the familiar glass-of-wine-in-the-lap move as a way of bringing an end to a particularly bitter marital dispute. There even appeared to be some proper Bucks Fizz being drunk at one point, a glass of which I could well have done with myself after that last scene.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Harder They Fall

The sign on the door of the Barbican theatre warned: ‘This performance contains smoking, guns, a haze machine and intermittent loud music.’ Loud music – at a musical? Is that the theatrical equivalent of ‘Caution, contents may be hot?’ At first this made me laugh when I read it, but after some consideration I think this degree of detail in signage could be a good thing, indeed they could well have continued: ‘This performance contains alarming polyester trousers, some ineptly thrown stage punches and an unnecessary degree of exposition in the second half.’

Actually that’s possibly a tad harsh. I enjoyed the show, The Harder They Come, Theatre Royal Stratford East’s staging of the famous Jamaican film, a great deal.

A big hit at the original theatre in both 2006 and 2007 it has now been picked up by the Barb for this year’s BITE line up. Which is gladdening, as it's one of the most entertaining things I've seen at the Barbican in a good long while. I’ve never seen the film on which it is based but the plot, which unfolds in flashback, is classic rise-and-downfall stuff. Ivan, charismatically played by Rolan Bell, wants to make a go off it in the music business but his efforts in this direction are thwarted by the local Mr Big, who insists on owning the rights of his songs and soaking up any profits. So Ivan turns to the drug trade to fund his dreams. A tussle with the police leads to him becoming an outlaw, something of a celebrated rebel. But, of course, it can’t end well with him and it doesn’t.

The production is split very distinctly. In the first half we get one musical number after another – all superbly performed – but little in the way of plot bar Ivan’s attempts to woo Elsa, the Preacher’s daughter (this mainly involves a comic misunderstanding about an invite to go for ‘a ride’ on his bike). In the second half this ratio of plot to music flips completely, as if someone suddenly remembered that a story was in order and there is a rush to cram everything in before the curtain falls. So suddenly the songs give way to the story of Ivan’s climb to notoriety and subsequent fall. The audience is bombarded with police corruption, shootings and sickly babies to the point where it is slightly disorientating. Fortunately the production’s ramshackle energy and sense of celebration carries it over these rougher moments. The songs help a lot: Many Rivers To Cross, You Can Get It If You Really Want, Higher and Higher and, of course, the title track. As does the fact that both Bell and Joanna Francis, as Elsa, have excellent voices.

There are also plenty of nice touches that go some way to softening the often soulless Barbican space. As the audience file in, the cast are milling about, both onstage and off, in the stairwells and balconies and later, the police chief, orders the house lights up and starts to interrogate the audience. Oh and there was smoking and guns as promised, though the latter sounded like a kid's cap gun when it was fired, quite why we were deemed to need prior warning wasn't clear.

You’d have thought the Barb’s signage efforts could be better employed elsewhere in the building. A confusing place to navigate at the best of time, large sections had been roped off for some event or other, and it took me an age to find the friend I was supposed to meet as our usual rendevous point - the bar - was out of bounds.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Major Staging

To the National on Wednesday night for Nicholas Hytner’s new production of Shaw’s Major Barbara. Having really enjoyed their staging of Saint Joan last year I was looking forward to this a great deal.

Having missed the recent-ish staging at the Orange Tree, the play was new to me. It begins with Lady Britomart finding herself forced to get in touch with her estranged husband, Andrew Undershaft, in order to secure her children’s financial futures: while one daughter is due to marry money, the other, Barbara, has devoted herself to saving souls at the Salvation Army.

Undershaft is an arms magnate who owns a vast weapons factory – to the zealous Barbara, her father’s money is tainted. So they make a deal, he will visit her shelter and see the work she does there, if she will then visit his factory. Thus the groundwork is set for a particularly meaty battle of ideas.

The play quickly moves away from the genteel and familiar drawing room setting of the opening scenes – where the wonderful Claire Higgins holds court in true Lady Bracknell fashion – to the drab, grey expanse of the Salvation Army shelter in the East End, a place where violence and desperation are part of life and the Salvationists offer the poor a sustaining slice of bread and treacle along with prayer and the promise of God’s love. Naturally many are apt to declare themselves saved as long as they get fed in exchange.

Undershaft argues that poverty is a barrier to true spiritual discourse and that, when the body is starving, it is hard to concentrate on higher matters. At his factory the workers are well provided for on every level and this makes them freer people. Barbara, however, believes that money only corrupts, particularly when it comes from the coffers of men who manufacture whisky or, worse, weapons, for a living. So she is appalled when the shelter accepts money from her father in order to stay afloat, even if it would have had to close without it.

Simon Russell Beale was subtly wonderful as Undershaft. He resisted the urge to make the character overly bombastic and seemed to convey so much without actually doing a lot. In particular, his deep-rooted love for his daughter, his aching admiration for her, was always painfully evident, though he never put it into words. I was les convinced by Hayley Atwell’s Barbara. Yes, she nailed the girl’s conviction and idealistic zeal, but I found her performance otherwise a little flat. My flatmate disagreed on this, and was particularly taken with what she termed Atwell’s ‘feverish, near-consumptive quality.’ This rather passed me by, though it’s hardly Atwell’s fault that Shaw rather sweeps her character aside in the second half to concentrate on the argument between Undershaft and Barbara’s Greek scholar fiancé, who is rather conveniently a foundling (because his parent’s marriage was illegal in England) and is thus eligible to take on the Undershaft business empire.

The set for this final battle of words is quite striking, rows and rows of missiles, filling the Olivier stage – it has a cinematic quality and is one of the best uses of that space I’ve seen in a while. Though the play nudges near the three hour mark, it was only in the last fifteen minutes or so that it loosened its dramatic grip, with the last bout of verbal jousting about ‘making war on war’ not quite packing the punch that it could have. Even so, the play, with its myriad digs at politicians, lawyers and journalists, still feels amazingly pertinent and resonant.

Sadly this time there were to be no Jeffery Archer sightings, however I did spot Jim Broadbent in the Olivier bar – though admittedly that doesn’t have the same ironic impact.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Lucky Man

And so to the Donmar, with a party that included the West End Whingers and Cityslicker, for a preview of The Man Who Had All The Luck - which, we were forewarned by the posters, is a ‘fable by Arthur Miller.’

(Maybe it’s my inner cynic but when I see the words fable or parable used in relation to a play it usually sets alarm bells ringing).

David is a young mechanic with plans to marry childhood sweetheart Hester. He’s not particularly talented or intelligent, but he’s a nice enough guy, and for some reason fortune seems to smile on him. Though he has no formal training his repair business is doing well and his girlfriend’s hostile and controlling dad, a major impediment to their marriage, is conveniently taken out of the picture. Later when David buys a gas station, a motorway is, soon after, built alongside it. So, while his friends and brother contend with the various knocks and disappointments of their lives, everything appears to go right for David, to the point where he starts to feel that fate owes him a catastrophe. Indeed, he becomes completely fixated with this idea of himself as ‘lucky’, to the point where he is unable to derive any pleasure from the good things that life has given him.

The first half is unusually short and, as we gathered at the bar in the interval, we were unsure as to where the play was going (particularly in regards to a mysterious Austrian character who fortuitously shows up at David’s garage at 4am and helps him fix a car; we suspected he may be angelic or somehow supernatural in origin, though this turned out not to be the case). After the play we were still somewhat hazy as to what it all meant but we knew an awful lot more about mink farming and, should we ever encounter black spots in mink feed, we’ll know just what to do. (In the later stages of the play David invests in a mink farm – a high risk venture).

Over the inevitable post-play bottle of red in a nearby pub we decided that the overall message has something to do with the fact that good deeds and good fortune don’t necessarily go hand in hand and that ‘luck’ is arbitrary and flexible concept; if you think of yourself as lucky you can become so. To David his luck becomes his curse, he becomes frozen, waiting for something to give – though in the end, common sense and a cautious character play as much of a part in David’s fortunes as his luck.

Regardless of what the whole thing may have meant, the notion of luck and chance and of some folks unaccountably having an easy ride of it in life, was pleasingly underlined by the fact that Jeffrey Archer was sitting prominently, smugly some might say, in the middle of the front row throughout.

Andrew and I had less luck however when we tried to sneak down from our perch in the circle to snag some empty stalls seats, as some other lucky sods beat us to it.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Free Press

So, having read Lyn Gardner and Andrew Haydon’s enthusiastic recommendations of Pierre Rigal’s Press at the Gate Theatre, I was both very keen to see it for myself, and also slightly apprehensive: what if I end up being that one person, you know, the one who doesn’t get it, the one left feeling bemused while everyone else whoops and applauds. I needn’t have worried. Both Lyn and Andrew were right. It was a superb piece of theatre, visually striking, spatially inventive, both genuinely funny and sinister at the same time, sometimes claustrophobic and intense, sometimes childishly brilliant, with a rare understanding of its own limitations. I don’t want to go over it in too much detail, as much of the pleasure of the show comes from the way it unfolds, the unexpected touches, the various feelings it evokes. I’ll just add my small, timid mumble of approval to their justified cheers.

My enjoyment of the show even overrode the twin irritations of the chap in the front row with the cough of a 90 year old moustachioed major and having some Notting Hill lady’s handbag wedged in my back for fifteen minutes as we waited for the house doors to open in the miniscule Gate Theatre box office/lobby space,